From Nek Muhammad to Fazlullah
Once Pakistan consented to fight US imposed war on terror as a Frontline State, it was asked by USA to flush out about 1000 foreign militants from FATA failing which the US military would be constrained to barge in. At that time, there were no Taliban in FATA or elsewhere in Pakistan except for a small percentage of Afghan Taliban fans. Regular troops ex 11 Corps entered Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency for the first time and from there proceeded to Shawal Valley in North Waziristan (NW) and then to South Waziristan (SW) in 2002 to launch operations against foreigners as well as their sympathizers. Their entry into SW and Musharrafâ€™s attempts to appease American paymasters sowed seeds of mistrust and gave birth to Pakistani Taliban. Terrorism in Pakistan grew when Pak Army at the behest of USA fought the militants in Mehsud belt in SW and later in NW and authorized employment of drones.
Foreign agencies based in Kabul on the other hand provided massive covert support to militant groups to fight and defeat Pak Army, kill pro-government elements in FATA and make the northwestern region chaotic. Undermining of Islam and cruelty perpetrated upon captives in CIA detention centres inflamed anti-Americanism and anti-Army sentiments among Islamists. Terrorism scaled new heights after Obama took over in January 2009 and formulated aggressive Af-Pak policy. Obama clearly spelt out at the outset that the US would take physical action against a target in FATA by drones or US Special Forces whenever any actionable intelligence came its way.
Nek Muhammad belonging to Yargul Khai sub-clan of Ahmadzai Wazir tribe in SW was the first Taliban commander to confront the Army. At the age of 19, he had joined the ranks of Mujahideen and had fought the Northern Alliance in provinces of Northern Afghanistan and had risen in ranks rapidly. He got acquainted with Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri, IMU leader Tahir Yaldeshev and Uyghur leader Hasan Mohsin. After taking part in war against the US led forces in Afghanistan in end 2001, he returned to Wana and formed Jaishal Qiba al Jihadi al-Siri al-Alimi. He provided shelter to al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who had fled from Afghanistan. In March 2004, bloody battle was fought by the Army to evict Chechen; Uzbek and Tajik militants from SW. Less Uzbeks, the rest were flushed out. 400 al-Qaeda operatives were captured and handed over to USA.
Lt Gen Safdar Commander 11 Corps prevailed upon Nek and the two signed a peace deal at Shakai Fort on April 24, 2004. Safdar embraced Nek, calling him â€˜a soldier of peaceâ€™. Soon after, Nek was killed by US drone near Wana on June 18, 2004 and the Army took the responsibility of his killing. After his death, Baitullah Mehsud hailing from Shabi Khel clan of Mehsud tribe emerged as the major militant leader. In the same timeframe, his cousin Abdullah Mehsud entered the arena of militancy in SW. He had lost a leg to a landmine in 1996 while fighting Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. He also fought against US led forces in October 2001 till he was arrested in December 2001. CIA released him from Guantanamo Bay Jail in early 2004 after fitting him with a prosthetic limb and thoroughly brainwashing him for 25 months and tasking him to fight Pak forces in SW. After his return he organized a 5000 strong force and operated in areas outside the realm of Baitullah Mehsud in Jandola, Tank and surroundings. He was behind abduction of two Chinese engineers working in Gomal Zam dam project.
In the aftermath of Nekâ€™s death, Maulvi Nazir from Ahmadzai Wazir tribe replaced him in Wazir dominated SW, and by and large remained on friendly terms with the Army essentially because of age-old enmity between Wazirs and Mehsuds. He contributed to Afghan Taliban war effort by training and sending fighters. In 2006, he affiliated his group with Jamiat ul Ulema Islam Fazlur Rahman group and established Islamic laws in SW. In March 2007, Nazir in response to Armyâ€™s demand, asked Uzbeks to quit SW or disarm and get registered. When they refused to comply, his group battled with them and by April 12 they managed to push them out of their area.
Since both Baitullah and Abdullah vied for gaining dominance over Pakistani Taliban, they operated separately and didnâ€™t enjoy friendly relations. Reportedly, he killed himself with a grenade once he was surrounded by security forces in Zhob on July 24, 2007. Zainuddin took over the leadership of his group. Suspecting that Baitullah had a hand in his death, he got into an alliance with Maulvi Nazir and later also allied with Turkistan Bhittani based in Jandola. Zain-Baitullah animosity peaked from March 2009 onwards and ended when Zain was killed on June 23, 2009 in DIK by a gunman of Baitullah. Pakistan government announced reward money of Rs 50,000,000 for arrest of Baitullah in June 2009.
After restoring order in SW, the security forces then entered Mehsud inhabited SW in 2004 where they were confronted by Baitullah Mehsud. After a hard fight, the troops cleared area up to short of Srarogha, and then both sides agreed to sign peace deal on February 8, 2005. The military agreed to withdraw leaving behind FC troops. The ceasefire however lasted only for five months after which Baitullah resumed attacks and started killing pro-government elements. By that time NW dominated by Hafiz Gul Bahadur led Othmanzai Wazir tribe heated up because of which additional troops had to be sent there from Kohat. Another peace agreement was signed by the Army with Gul Bahadur in September 2006 after the military agreed to remove pickets and release prisoners. Agreement was broken but renewed in August 2008, which is still intact.
In the meanwhile, Bajaur under Maulvi Faqir Muhammad became restive. Efforts to broker peace agreement with Faqir were scuttled by a drone attack on a religious Madrassa in Bajaur on October 30, 2006 killing 82 young students. The ISPR bailed out USA by claiming it was Armyâ€™s doing. In retaliation, the militants fired RPG rockets on KP Governorâ€™s security camp and on the convoy of 11 Corps Commander Lt Gen Aurakzai on November 8, 2006. The same day, Punjab Centreâ€™s training centre in Dargai was targeted by a suicide bomber killing 42 recruits and wounding 20. In March 2007, peace deal was inked with Maulvi Faqir in Bajaur. By then, the militants had gained control of three agencies of SW, NW and Bajaur.
Bajaur incident on October 30, 2006 followed by Lal Masjid military operation in July 2007 in which over 100 inmates were killed were two events which galvanized the rural youth from deprived class to gravitate towards militancy. A militant outfit Janood-e-Hafsa comprising militants mostly from Southern Punjab was formed by Asmatullah Muawia to avenge deaths of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa victims. Muawia linked up with Khalid Umar Khurasani led militants in Mehmand Agency and later when Baitullah formed TTP from an alliance of five militant groups in FATA in December 2007, Muawia allied with TTP, which had become more proactive after Lal Masjid tragedy. Hundreds of suicide bombers lined up and there was sudden escalation of suicide attacks in urban centres targeting both military and civilian targets.
TTP is a different entity from Mullah Omar which has confined its fight against Pakistan and Pak security forces only. Over a period of time it has spread its tentacles to settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) including Swat, Malakand and Darra Adam Khel (DAK) as well as Pashtun belt of Balochistan, southern Punjab wherefrom large numbers were enrolled as Punjabi Taliban with the help of Muawia and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and Karachi. TTP was able to convert SW, Swat and Bajaur into highly fortified strongholds. As long as Tariq Afridi was in command of TTP chapter in DAK, he continuously threatened Kohat tunnel. Al-Qaeda linked with TTP provides technical, tactical and financial support to TTP. Several other banned extremist groups engaged in Kashmir Jihad, sectarianism and in criminal activities have joined TTP out of expediency, enabling TTP to strike targets in urban centres.
In Kurram Agency, sectarian war between sub-tribes stoked by foreign hand took a heavy toll of lives. TTP chapter of Kurram Agency under Fazal Saeed Utazai broke away from TTP and formed his own group. Mehmand Agency under Omar Khalid Khurasani and Orakzai Agency became hotspots. Turbulence in the two agencies was controlled by launching targeted operations. In Khyber Agency, Mangal Bagh heading Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) emerged in Bara Tehsil in 2007 as a powerful entity and threatened Jamrud and the capital city of Peshawar. After pushing out pro-government Ansar-ul-Islam (AI) from Bara, LI chased it to Tirah Valley. After a hard fight from January to March 2013, LI in collusion with TTP managed to expel AI from Tirah resulting in deaths of 250 and displacement of 2-300,000 people. The Army supported by PAF launched Operation Rah-e-Shahadat and succeeded in evicting the duo by June.
The only two Pashtun militant groups which stayed out of TTP and stuck to peace agreements with Army were Maulvi Nazir led group in SW and Hafiz Gul Bahadur led group in NW. In addition, a group led by Sirajuddin Haqqani based in NW is also friendly to the government and Army. On June 21, 2006 Sirajuddin had issued a decree that it was not Afghan Taliban policy to fight Pak Army. Sirajuddin carries head bounty of $5 million.
Swat and Malakand Division under the sway of Maulana Fazlullah, son-in-law of TNSMâ€™s head Maulana Sufi, virtually made Swat into a State within a State and unleashed a reign of terror on the people of Swat and surrounding districts between 2007 and early 2009. Known as â€˜Mullah Radioâ€™, he not only exhorted people on radio to join his cadre but also trained teenage boys as suicide bombers at Mingora and at his HQ in Peochar. Bajaur became the exclusive domain of Maulvi Faqir Muhammad because of easy inflow of arms, equipment and funds from Kunar. This route of supply was also used for Swat via Dir. Srarogha became the command centre of TTP where Qari Hussain trained small boys aged between 11 to 18 years as suicide bombers. The three fortifications of Swat, Bajaur and SW had stored tons of sophisticated weaponry, ammunition and explosives in secret tunnels and caves to last them for next ten years.
After the second military operation in Swat, peace deal was signed with Maulana Sufi and Fazlullah in February 2009. KP government agreed to introduce Nizam-e-Adal in Swat and Malakand Division and the other side agreed to renounce violence. Hardly had the ink dried on the agreement when Fazllulahâ€™s men opened new fronts in Buner and Lower Dir, which raised alarm bells that militants were working their way towards Islamabad. All political forces got together and passed a joint resolution to combat the militant threat with full force. It led to launching of military operation codenamed Rah-e-Rast on April 26, 2009 which ensued heavy fighting but in the end security forces supported by PAF emerged as winners. Injured Fazlullah and his key leaders escaped to Kunar. Many fled to Karachi and got settled in Pashtun community.
Heavy fighting ensued in Loisam area of Bajaur in August 2008 in which hundreds of foreign fighters poured in from Afghanistan. Situation was stabilized within four days. In response to a suicide attack on Marriot Hotel in Islamabad in September 2008 planned by Faqirâ€™s men, an offensive was launched in Bajaur. By the time an operation was launched in Swat, all areas under the control of militants in Bajaur were recaptured and over 1000 militants including five high profile al-Qaeda operatives were killed and RAW trained Afghan militants pushed out. Peace was restored after Faqir and his hardcore militants fled to Kunar.
On night of August 5, 2009, Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a drone in the house of in-laws of his recently married second wife in SW. It led to war of succession but ultimately Baitullahâ€™s bodyguard and driver Hakeemullah Mehsud was appointed the Ameer of TTP onAugust 22, who was as vicious as Fazlullah. However, the cracks in TTP never got repaired. Notwithstanding inner tensions, the Mehsuds suspected Maulvi Nazirâ€™s hand in the killing of their Ameer and attacked his camp in late August 2009 resulting in deaths of several men of Nazir.
Baitullahâ€™s death and impending operation in SW impelled Hakeemullah to step up terrorist attacks. 2009 saw commencement of group attacks in Lahore. October 2009 was the heaviest in which GHQ was attacked on 10th, a military convoy was hit on 12th killing 41 soldiers, FIA building in Lahore attacked on 15th, ISI office in Peshawar on 16th, Islamic University Islamabad on 20th, a Brig was killed on 22nd, security post at Kamra attacked on 23rd, bomb blast in a restaurant in Peshawar on the same day, a Brig and his mother were shot at in Islamabad on 27th. Market in Shangla, police stations in Kohat and Peshawar and UN World Food Program offices in Islamabad were also targeted. These attacks impelled Gen Ashfaq Kayani to launch another military operation against the strongest base of TTP in SW. Operation Rah-e-Nijat was unleashed on 17th October 2009 and despite stiff resistance, the bastion of power was overpowered in a month time.
The operation owed its success to Maulvi Nazir and Gul Bahadurâ€™s cooperation who agreed not to disturb Armyâ€™s bases of operations resting within their respective areas of influence. Mehsuds ignored Bahadur but not Nazir. An attempt was made on him by a suicide bomber in November 2011, in which he received injuries but survived. In order to get back to his hometown in Makeen and also to extend his influence into Wazir dominated SW, it is speculated that Hakeemullah planned to kill his rival Maulvi Nazir. He passed on the information to NDS about his location through his emissary, which enabled CIA to kill him with drone near Angoor Adda in SW on January 2, 2013.
With the dismantling of their main base in SW, the disarrayed TTP fighters sought refuge in other tribal agencies and in neighboring Nangarhar. Nucleus of TTP however shifted to Mirali in NW inhabited by second biggest tribe of Dawars after Othmanzai Wazir tribe. Some took refuge in area of Torikhel sub-tribe of Othmanzai tribe, reputed to be most ferocious fighters. For all practical purposes, TTP had lost its fighting potential after Operation Rah-e-Nijat. However, RAW and Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) with the blessing of CIA reinvigorated TTP that had been created with a set agenda to pulverize Pak Army. Absconding Fazlullah, Faqir, Khurasani and their men were activated in safe havens of Kunar and Nuristan. They were given houses, free rations and monthly pay as well arms and training facilities and launched into Dir, Mehmand, Bajaur and Chitral to heat up western border. Likewise, empty kitty of TTP was refilled and assigned new targets.
The TTPâ€™s relocated base is now in NW, but its tentacles are spread all over the country. During the period of 2011-2012, large number of terrorist groups banned by Pakistan teamed up with TTP thereby strengthening the hands of Hakeemullah, but also added to his command and control problems. Most of the groups are Punjab based and the total numbers of groups are 54 including 37 offshoot groups of TTP and a dozen foreign groups. Linkage of Punjabi Taliban led by Asmatullah Muawia with TTP has given the TTP added advantage to strike targets within Punjab. Knowing that he was the most wanted man and the US had kept $5 million head money on him in 2010 after the deadly suicide attack on CIA base in Khost, Hakeemullah kept changing his abodes frequently and hardly stayed in NW to protect himself from drones. For all practical purposes, his deputy Waliur Rahman managed TTPâ€™s affairs. Qari Hussainâ€™s death by a drone further weakened the hold of Hakimullah and strengthened Wali led lobby favoring talks with the government.
Death of Waliur Rahman on May 30, 2013 disrupted the peace process that had begun to shape up after the election of pro-talks federal government and KP government. Hakeemullah appointed Khalid, alias Sajna, another pro-peace TTP leader and close friend of Wali as his deputy and head of TTP chapter in SW. But he never felt comfortable with him since he was more inclined towards anti-peace talks group. When Nawaz Sharif offered dialogue in his address to the nation in August, some of the TTP leaders like Ehsanullah Ehsan, Sajna and Muawia hailed his offer. Considering it to be an act of defiance against the policy of TTP Shura, Hakeemullah sacked Ehsan and Muawia and replaced Sajna with his very close confidante Latif Mehsud as his deputy and also appointed him as head of TTP chapter NW.
His knee-jerk reactions indicated growing rift within TTP between pro-peace and anti-peace groups. The latter group has remained stuck to their stance of holding talks with the government from a position of strength with the aim of getting the constitution radically altered by injecting Islamic clauses, replacing Anglo-Saxon laws with Islamic laws, getting all their prisoners released, ending drone war, withdrawal of Army from FATA, getting out of US imposed war and sharing power.
With the change of government in June 2013, the situation has undergone a change. The PML-N government in the centre and in Punjab, the PTI government in KP and religious political parties/groups are all soft towards the TTP and are keen to hold talks to end the futile war. All partiesâ€™ conference was held on 9 September 2013 and a consensus resolution was passed authorizing the government to hold talks with militants unconditionally and to condemn drone attacks which were fuelling terrorism. Since then the government has replaced the fight-fight strategy with talk-talk strategy, while holding on to reoccupied regions and at best reacting to direct attacks. This strategy although seemingly wise is devoid of reciprocity from the other side.
When the TTP welcomed the initiative taken by the APC, it was taken as a sign that the road had been cleared for negotiations between the two sides. The KP government felt so confident that it announced phased withdrawal of troops from Buner, Shangla, Upper and Lower Dir, Chitral and Malakand districts starting mid October 2013 and handing over responsibility to civil administration. While the ground was being smoothened for the meeting, an unexpected and unfortunate incident took place a day after the announcement of withdrawal plan. On September 15, Maj Gen Sanaullah Niazi, and two others embraced shahadat at Upper Dir on account of IED planted by Fazlullahâ€™s militants.
The incident shocked everyone and peace process got a big jolt when TTP claimed responsibility on the following day and vowed to continue hitting military targets. This hostile act in response to Governmentâ€™s policy of conciliation and appeasement was incomprehensible and regrettable. It caused deep anguish and anger to the rank and file of the Army and put the central and KP governments in awkward position but gave a strong handle to the anti-peace lobbies to beat the peace makers with and make fun of them. As the debate between pro-peace and anti-peace lobbies intensified, another gruesome act of terror took place on September 22in Peshawar where a church was struck by two suicide bombers soon after Sunday prayers killing 84 people and injuring 175.
While TTP denied involvement, Jundullah Hafsa, a faction of TTP comprising Punjabi Taliban and led by Asmatullah Muavia claimed responsibility of church attack but later disowned it. Muawia had developed differences with Hakimullah after he welcomed Nawaz Sharifâ€™s offer of peace talks and was shunted out of TTP in August last. Ehsanullah Ehsan was also sacked on similar grounds which gave an indication of weakening of TTP. However, notwithstanding lingering heartburning, Hakeemullah and Muawia patched up. In the wake of widespread denunciation inside and outside the country over the dastardly attack on church and condemnation by Ulemas of all schools of thoughts terming the act against the teachings of Quran and Sunnah, TTP Shura urged Muawia to disown the act.
Soon after his disownment, another group Jundullah led by Ahmed Marwat based in NW claimed responsibility. Amidst the confusion, ailing Hakimullah confronted with cracks within TTP added to his woes by replacing Sajna with Latif Mehsud and also giving him additional portfolio of commander TPP chapter Miranshah. Latif had been serving Hakeemullah as his driver and body guard. Like Muawia who had resisted his removal from TTP, Sajna also refused to relinquish his post and lobbied hard to form his own faction.
On September 23, TTP held a meeting in NW which was chaired by Sirajuddin Haqqani and attended by representatives of large number of outfits. It was decided to monitor the progress of peace talks. This meeting was an indication that a change had come in the overall thinking of the hawks as well thereby once again raising hopes of a ceasefire and commencement of negotiations in the near future.
Arrest of Hakeemullahâ€™s deputy Latif Mehsud in Afghanistan by US Special Forces in end October became big news. Reportedly, he was being escorted by NDS officials to Jalalabad to meet Indian High Commissioner. Another report says that he was sent as TTP emissary to Afghanistan by Hakeemullah to procure monetary and material assistance from NDS and guidance regarding peace talks offered by Pak government. Assigning future tasks besides meeting their demands by the NDS in league with RAW has been a routine affair for the last many years. None can deny that the US led ISAF and CIA are in full knowledge of TTP secret links with NDS and RAW and covert operations supervised by RAW. It is also a known fact that TTP is an asset of CIA, RAW and NDS and the trio have played a role in the election of TTP Ameer. Hakeemullah had earned applauds for carrying out sensational terror attacks against military targets in Pakistan.
The actual story is however similar to the one related to Maulvi Nazirâ€™s death. Hakeemullah had become a liability for his patrons after he got inclined to peace talks and hence marked as a target. He had to be bumped off and another Ameer, totally in their iron grip, chosen. Latif was arrested because he was the only one who knew the exact program of Hakeemullahâ€™s planned visit to NW onOctober 31. Probably $ 5 million award was too attractive an inducement for Latif to change his loyalties who otherwise was not in favor of talks. To assume that CIA has lost interest in TTP will be premature. CIA will use this card to keep Pakistan under pressure during its transition phase.
Hakeemullah was killed by a drone in Dandey Darpakhel on October 31, 2013 at a time when he had accepted the dialogue offer and was expected to meet the government delegation of three Ulema on the following day. Chaudhri Nisar had worked hard to tie up the loose ends and was very hopeful for a breakthrough. It was natural for peace lovers to feel disturbed over the gory incident, which was a willful attempt to derail peace process. Karzaiâ€™s outburst of anger over arrest of Latif was a put up show. TTPâ€™s former spokesman Azam Tariq threatened that â€œevery drop of Hakeemullahâ€™s blood will turn into a suicide bomber. There were large numbers of reprisal attacks.
Hardliner Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani was named interim TTP chief and on November 7, much to the surprise of all and sundry the most ruthless and wanted man in Pakistan Fazlullah was named as the new Ameer and equally brutal Khalid Haqqani hailing from Swabi as his deputy. Shahidullah Shahid became the spokesman. It is for the first time that both the top appointments have been doled out to non-tribesmen. In his urge to prove that he is as good, if not better than his predecessors in the field of militancy, Fazlullah intensified militancy. He will do as told to do by his benefactors.
Seeing that the wind had started to blow against them, the new leadership of TTP made another offer of talks. Nawaz Sharif responded by forming a four-member peace committee comprising Irfan Siddiqui, Major Retd Amer, Prof Ibrahim, Rahimullah Yusafzai and Rustam Shah to represent the government for holding peace talks with Taliban. In response, the TTP rather than forming its own committee named Maulana Samiul Haq, Imran Khan, Maulvi Abdul Aziz and Mufti Kafaitullah to represent Taliban. Imran, Kafaitullah and later on Aziz opted out of the team.
In the first meeting in NW, the TTP put forward demands of withdrawal of Army from SW and release of elders, women and children in the custody of security forces. ISPR denied detaining any such captives. Killing of 13 police commandoes and injury to 57 in Karachi on February 14, 2014 followed by gruesome beheading of 23 FC soldiers on February 17, 2014, taken captive in June 2010 by Omar Khurasani men and taken to Afghanistan, stalled peace process and forced the government to take punitive action against TTP hideouts in NW and Khyber Agency through six surgical strikes on February 20. Subsequently, targets in SW and Tirah were hit with deadly precision. Series of strikes were so effective that the TTP high command was impelled to announce ceasefire unilaterally for one month and to renew talks. Killing of Asmatullah Shaheen on February 24 was another big loss for the TTP.
Its offer was accepted on 2 March and surgical strikes put on hold. However, yet another dastardly attack took place in Islamabad on March 3, targeting district courts killing a judge and ten others and injuring 25 people. It was owned by little known Ahrar-ul-Hind. An FC convoy was attacked in Landikotal on the same day. The two acts were disowned but not condemned by TTP. RAW or spoilers are probably behind the series of attacks to disrupt peace process. Under the revised program, it has now been decided that the governmentâ€™s new team will hold direct talks with Taliban team under the supervision of PM and the proceedings kept secret to keep the spoilers at armâ€™s length. The Army and ISI are ready to form part of the negotiation team as well as to resume precision strikes or to launch an operation in NW. The TTP Shura has been conveyed to identify and pinpoint the anti-State and anti-talks groups operating under its umbrella so that they could be dealt with sternly.
Regardless of continuation of attacks, the government is determined to pursue the dialogue process to end a violent anti-State campaign that has claimed nearly 50,000 lives. Talking from position of weakness would however be a recipe for disaster. Efforts must continue to cultivate and strengthen pro-talks groups and isolate and weaken anti-peace talks groups. At the same time, well-thought out strategy must be devised how to checkmate possibility of new wave of violence in the coming months in major urban centres. The US and Karzai regime must be clearly told to stop their double game and hand over Fazlullah, Faqir and Khurasani at the earliest.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur has been unable to control activities of TTP and other militant groups based in NW despite his pleadings and warnings. Neither his Shura Muraqba has been able to control violence and vices. He must assert his authority to checkmate terrorism emanating out of NW before the government is compelled to launch a major operation. Coming weeks are very crucial to determine the fate of ongoing peace talks moving on a bumpy road.